When we talk about relationships, a lot of people say, “Age is just a number.” I still believe this is true, but only to a certain extent.
At 15, I started dating a man five years my senior (five years and three months, to be exact). This relationship made me aware that in some cases when one person in the relationship is under age, or way less experienced than the other person, it can cause a power dynamic in the relationship that is not only stressful and unhealthy, but could potentially be dangerous.
At first dating him was exciting — he had a car, a job, and his own apartment. He had already graduated high school, had lots of older friends, and for some reason that I couldn’t figure out, he thought I was cool. In an effort to impress him and his friends I was constantly trying to prove that even though I was younger, I was worthy of their attention.
Sometimes it worked and I could use the shallow knowledge I had gained from my AP Literature courses to stagger my way through their conversations on Steinbeck. Other times I felt like a complete outsider. I would watch as my boyfriend sat with his friends and smoked cigarettes or drank out of a red solo cup and felt completely out of place in his mature, post-grad world.
The other difficulty in our relationship was sex. My boyfriend was not a virgin when I met him, and neither were any of the other men he hung out with. He never outwardly pressured me to be physical, but the dirty jokes and insinuations his friends made whenever we touched or disappeared for too long were enough to make me feel guilty for not being as experienced as he was. The jokes were constant and always came back to my being a virgin and how he would turn me from a girl into a “real woman.” While, at first,he pretended not to hear them and I pretended that they didn’t bother me, he eventually started to make the jokes too. He went on to tell me that I was too innocent for him and that he would end up corrupting me before I graduated high school.
So I decided to prove him wrong. I initiated sex before he had the chance to, all the while telling myself that if I started it then I was the one corrupting him.
It wasn’t until I got older, about the age that he was when we had first started dating, that I realized how unhealthy our relationship had been. At 19 years old, I would look at 15-year-olds and wonder how someone my age could ever find it appropriate to pursue them romantically.
While movies and television paint the idea of an older man as a dream worth pining over, women are mostly desexualized completely or mocked and called “cougars” when they date outside their age range. In fact a lot of male celebrities sought after by young women, from Johnny Depp to Brad Pitt, are dating women 10-20 years their junior. For teenage girls, this can make them think that they need to grow up faster in order to attract this kind of man, the one that everybody wants.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize that not all relationships with a large age gap are toxic. My ex boyfriend and his friends were manipulative people in general, something that had nothing to do with their age or mine. They made it a point to use our age difference as a tool to control me; as a way to make me feel inferior.
The subject of whether or not to date an older partner is one that gets ignored a lot, mostly because a lot of people don’t consider it an issue. Parents don’t assume that their children will look for romantic partners in older people, and therefore don’t really think to talk to them about it.
My relationship with an older man was a destructive one, but it did teach me that I should never change myself for someone else, because if they want you to change in the first place, you’re already never going to be enough for them. This is a lesson that I learned the hard way, the same way a lot of girls do. However, being mindful of the way your daughter dates or the kind of people she hangs around with can prevent her from going through these experiences, or at the very least, going through them alone.